The Search for the ‘Citizen Kane’ of Video Games

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[Originally posted on Gather Your Party 17.05.2013]

Citizen Kane is often perceived as one of the landmark achievements of cinema, pioneering cinematographic styles and applying visual storytelling techniques as a form of narrative.

It is considered by many to be the first true manifestation of cinema, using the medium to its fullest. However, when talking about “the Citizen Kane of video games,” what exactly do we have in mind?

If we take it to mean emulating the visual storytelling of Citizen Kane, it would simply denote a game that used cinematography and visual narrative to convey its story. We have had many games since the dawn of the 3D era that utilized typical cinematic techniques for storytelling.

Games with different camera perspectives tend to use different techniques that compliment the chosen style of visual presentation; they use dramatically important lighting, acting, depth of field, camera angles and other, popular, visual framing devices. Shadow Of The Colossus with its cinematic camera could serve as an example, and many cutscenes still employ the same techniques pioneered and iterated upon since Citizen Kane.

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The camera in Shadow of The Colossus underscores the gameplay.

However, I sense that this is not what most people mean when they invoke the ghost of Orson Welles. It may be that we want something that would influence games just as much as Citizen Kane did for film as a medium. In this case the answer seems trivial.

There have been multitudes of games that are considered hallmarks of the industry, games that would change the industry and design forever, milestones in design have existed since the paddles started moving in Pong. There is a long list of video games that were as influential for game design as Citizen Kane was for film.

A recent example could be Half Life; its scripted events influenced storytelling in games to the point where almost every game with a narrative now uses them as the prime method of story conveyance. When it comes to gameplay however, the examples are not always as clear-cut.

Game design is a highly iterative process, closer to engineering than artistic expression, and genres/taxonomy are dependent on mechanics rather than content, style, or subject matter. Games like Doom, for example, were certainly influential in their genre, but their design and mechanics are not translatable to others outside of it. Finding a game that would influence the entirety of the medium from a mechanical perspective is hence an impossible task.

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Half-Life’s scripted events shaped the game industry just as much as Citizen Kane shaped Hollywood.

The search continues.

Could it be that we are looking at this from the wrong perspective? Is it really influence and visual storytelling that we are after? Is it perhaps instead the auteurship of a piece? Games are often collaborative efforts; in this aspect they are very similar to film. Dozens of details have to come together in a movie: stages have to be built, costumes sown, cameras manned, scripts written, characters acted, and editing performed.

The public perceives the genius of Citizen Kane to be the work of one man, Orson Welles. Evidence suggests that Welles’ involvement in all aspects of production was what made the film the piece of cinematic history that it is today. Auteurship is a rare occurrence in game design and development, especially when talking about large budgets and “AAA” development, but it is not unheard-of.

Enter Hideo Kojima, and with him possibly the most well-known example of auteurship in game design: Metal Gear Solid 2.

Kojima’s involvement in the Metal Gear series – his creative control – mimics that of Orson Welles with Citizen Kane. While both Citizen Kane and Metal Gear Solid 2 were of course collaborative efforts, it is undeniable that both Kojima and Welles were the individuals that made these works what they are. They became integral parts of the execution.

In this sense, concerning involvement and direction, Metal Gear Solid 2 can be seen as “the Citizen Kane of video games,” and with it, Hideo Kojima as “the Orson Welles of video games”.

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Welles and Kojima share a surprising amount of parallels.

Another interpretation might be that we ought to see Citizen Kane as an embodiment of an ideal form of execution in the medium. Our quest becomes the search for the fabled Gesamtkunstwerk, as described by Wagner and applied to game design. An ideal game, a perfect amalgamation of elements of the medium used for narrative delivery

Unfortunately a work like this does not yet exist. Speculation on what kind of elements this hypothetical ideal game would have? Impossible. Though, what if we are entirely wrong? What if invoking Citizen Kane as an example or metaphor in context to video games is not applicable at all?

The media are so diametrically different – one driven by the work itself, the other by the audience. Interactivity in games is the driving force of narrative, the player becoming a co-author in the experience itself. It is so distant to film and cinema that a comparison between the two becomes tenuous at best.

Couldn’t it be said that interacting with the game is part of the process of creating the work itself? Games rely on participation of the audience, something which cinema and film do not. How can we expect a designer to create something like Citizen Kane if he does not have the full creative control over his own work? If he did assume full creative control, could the resulting work even be called a game?

Perhaps we need more distance from other media, a bit more introspection instead of trying to look outwards. Maybe we don’t need to emulate history. Maybe that’s the only way this medium is going to mature.

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One Response to The Search for the ‘Citizen Kane’ of Video Games

  1. Gnalvl says:

    The problem is that so many people engaging in this search are so misguided… obsessed with pulling at any straw which might legitimize games as “serious business” when they don’t actually have anything meaningful to say about the medium.

    It’s an exercise in missing the point – asking whether games are art is a mere semantics debate, attempting to derive social commentary from games generally ignores other media which made much stronger versions of the same statements decades earlier, and injecting linear story into games undermines their primary characteristic – interactivity.

    In games, players should not be told stories, the players should BE the stories. Players should be the protagonist of the game, not merely the audience. A game can’t be a truly great game merely by adapting cinematic techniques – since this undermines interactivity, this would, at best, make the game into a great movie, while also making it a bad game.

    After all, how many sensible, intelligent adults would really be willing to suffer through a bluray of a great movie, which stipulates that you do silly button mashing QTE busy work to advance into each new scene? Even if it were a Scorcese masterpiece, the release would be lauded as a crappy bluray, so why should we celebrate such a monstrosity as a good game?

    That is what so much of the modern game industry is attempting, and that is why it’s failing.

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